No easy answers for budget gap


WALLA WALLA — As a December deadline looms, county officials are finding no quick or easy answers to balancing Walla Walla County’s 2013 budget.

County commissioners, county Auditor Karen Martin, county Treasurer Gordon Heimbigner and others continued their discussions this week on how to close a $1.9 million gap between projected revenues and requested expenditures. Commissioners will return to the topic Monday at their regular meeting.

Commissioners Greg Tompkins and Perry Dozier said today they will ask department heads and elected officials to refigure their budgets to reflect a wage freeze and no increases in cost of living allowances to see if that helps close the gap. Along with going to the 2012 level of expenditures, Dozier said. “we’re then asking ‘if you have any other place to cut, let us know.’”

Commissioners are also waiting to hear from the county personnel-risk manager on whether the county qualifies for cuts in health insurance costs due to 40 percent of the 139 employees paid out of the current expense budget signing up for a wellness program, Dozier said. That could help toward balancing the budget, but will not in itself be enough.

During budget talks in the past weeks, commissioners said they and other officials have been unable to find many, if any, one-time expenditures to cut that will make major inroads into closing the gap. Another major question mark in all of the discussions is what will be the outcome of contract negotiations with three unions representing sheriff’s deputies, correctional officers and courthouse employees.

Those contracts will not be finalized until next year and if they require increased costs, commissioners agreed it will make any solution reached this year meaningless.

“That’s the biggest thing,” Dozier said today about the pending contracts. “We could come up with whatever numbers we need to balance the budget, but if the contracts come back with increases it won’t mean anything.”

A worst-case scenario would have elected officials and department heads having to deal with increased labor costs in 2013 with the money they’ve been allotted in 2012, commissioners said. With no other place to cut expenses, layoffs may be the only option.

“It’s not that we (commissioners) are telling them to cut people,” Dozier said. “If they (elected officials and department heads) can find a place to cut without layoffs, then do it.”

At Monday’s discussion, county Treasurer Gordon Heimbigner said county officials need to take on strategic planning to decide what are the “bare essentials for each office and where do we want to be in four years?” He said that just as federal officials have warned of being “close to a fiscal cliff, so are we.”


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